Swine n' Dine
Sylvan Farms brings the "spirits" of organic farming to Saluda
Years ago, while living in Los Angeles, Joey McQuade went shopping for steaks. A butcher recommended pork chops from the heritage Berkshire breed. The meat was red and marbled like beef, which startled him, as it would anyone living in the era of the commercial pork industry’s “other white meat” marketing campaign. The brilliance of that message was in masking one of the essential differences between animals that exercise and those that don’t, like confined factory-farmed pigs: their muscles receive much less of the oxygen-storing protein called myoglobin, which makes meat red. The incredible flavor of that pork chop was equally eye-opening for McQuade. He had dreams of running a farm one day, and from that meal came the idea of including free-roaming heritage-breed pigs.
It’s a long road from the West Coast to South Carolina, a gap as wide as McQuade’s life traveling the world as an importer of handmade folk art and furniture to running a family farm—Certified Organic and Animal Welfare Approved—in Saluda County. He had promised his wife, Erin, they would bring their children back East near their families, and one day, farm. Meanwhile, they browsed for land for sale, and he read every book he could find on sustainable farming.
In 2011 their dream took root on 100 rundown acres in Saluda, overgrown with bramble but centered by a century-old farm house surrounded by magnificent oak trees. For Joey especially, the trees sealed the deal. “It would take two or three generations for trees to grow that large, and I am neither patient nor immortal.” Located on Sylvan Road, a word they learned means “spirit of the woods,” Sylvan Farm named itself.
Changing lifestyles took time, McQuade says.
“It was so quiet at night, I couldn’t sleep for the first couple weeks.”
While clearing the farm and shoring up the house, they grew kale, collards, radishes, turnips, carrots and heirloom tomatoes. Selling produce one Saturday at the Lexington market, they met Brian Nelson, chef at Keg Cowboy.
“I pretty much bought them out of everything they had,” says Nelson, and his restaurant soon became a regular customer. Later, as a buyer of Sylvan Farm pork, and after partnering on a farm-to-table dinner, Nelson would influence McQuade’s decision to crossbreed pigs.
McQuade started raising Gloucestershire Old Spots, an easygoing pig that thrives on pasture. Its meat is especially good as bacon, sausage and Boston butt, but its small loins don’t produce sizeable hams and chops. So he looked at other breeds to find the mix of size and taste, and decided on Duroc, a muscular, well-developed red meat pig, and Berkshire, known for its tenderness and marbling. Crossing a Duroc boar with Berkshire females, he has produced what he describes as a “beautiful pig that’s extremely active, a great forager and produces incredible meat.”
Sylvan’s pigs wallow and roam over 20 acres of open oak forest, devouring the farm’s organic vegetable leavings and rooting out fall acorns and pecans on top of supplemental feed.
“It’s gorgeous,” says Nelson, describing the pigs’ home as well as the pork they produce. “The marbling is beautiful on it, the meat is just bright red, and has really, really nice flavor.”
Serving locavores a seasonal menu is Nelson’s mission at Keg Cowboy, and he had been frustrated with suppliers that didn’t offer local foods when Lexington County is home to tens of thousands of farm acres. Working directly with farmers like McQuade makes for hyper-seasonal menus created from what is fresh in the moment.
Restaurants and retail customers seeking organically grown produce and meat from humanely raised animals require proof from trustworthy sources. Sylvan Farms sought and earned USDA Certified Organic and the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) from A Greener World. AWA is offered at no cost only to small sustainable farms. It assures that animals live in outdoor environments where they behave naturally, and strictly regulates their care. McQuade acknowledges it took years to meet the requirements for their pigs, cattle and poultry.
“Once you have it, you really feel good about it. It’s the most respected certification for animals there is. When people see it and have done the research, they really respect what you’re doing.” He adds the certification has helped business, particularly retail. Sylvan is the only AWA farm in Saluda County.
Looking back through their years of lifestyle shift, work, thrift and the learning curve of raising pastured animals, McQuade says he and Erin knew there would be big changes, “but the biggest surprise is that it’s worth giving up what we had. I love what I do. I absolutely love it.”
Find Sylvan Farm products at 14 Carrot, Rosewood Market and Wingard’s Market,
and the restaurants Bodhi Thai Dining, Keg Cowboy and Sapori in Lexington; Motor Supply Company Bistro in Columbia; and The Willcox in Aiken.